Amnesia grips witnesses
MANILA, Philippines—The inquiry into military corruption resumed Thursday at the Senate, with the persons summoned to testify beset by forgetfulness and hypertension.
Edgardo Yambao, a brother-in-law of ex-military comptroller Jacinto Ligot and earlier described by senators as a “mystery man,” appeared at the hearing but could not explain how he had amassed at least P255 million without a visible means of income.
Yambao’s sister Erlinda, Ligot’s wife who is recorded as having traveled abroad 42 times from 1993 to 2004, also showed up but was so nervous when it was her turn to be questioned that she was sent to the Senate clinic for medical treatment. Her blood pressure turned out to be highly elevated.
Even Roy Cimatu, a former Armed Forces chief of staff alleged to have benefited from a slush fund for the military brass, could not explain two pieces of real estate in Iloilo City registered in his and his wife’s names.
Yambao, 53, later claimed that he played the stock market and made extensive business trips abroad from the late 1980s to early 2000. He also admitted to gambling in Las Vegas and to owning a house in and being a permanent resident of Australia.
But he shot down the speculation that Ligot had used him as a front for suspected ill-gotten wealth, saying: “I’ll never admit I’m a dummy.”
In the end, Yambao was told that the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) would be directed to charge him with tax evasion.
The Senate blue ribbon committee is actually looking into the controversial plea bargain between state prosecutors and Carlos Garcia, Ligot’s successor as military comptroller who is charged with plunder to the tune of P303 million.
Ligot himself is facing a P135.2-million forfeiture case in the Sandiganbayan. His co-defendants are his wife Erlinda, children Paulo, Riza and Miguel, sister Miguela Ligot-Paragas and Yambao.
For close to two hours, Yambao sought to distance himself from court records stating he had dollar and peso deposits amounting to P255 million, alternately claiming he could not remember or invoking his right to privacy.
Confronted with an Anti-Money Laundering Council report that he had peso and dollar accounts in Citibank, Metrobank and United Overseas Bank from 2001 to 2005 amounting to P255 million, he told Sen. Franklin Drilon, the chair of the Senate finance committee: “I can’t remember that. That’s not mine.”
Challenged to waive his right to the accounts in favor of the government, Yambao said he did not “own those figures.” But he admitted having accounts in the three banks.
Drilon then told him that he had undeclared deposits of P255 million and “a potential liability of P91 million.”
“You stand liable for tax evasion, and we will be asking the BIR to check your accounts and file charges of tax evasion against you.” Drilon said.
‘Lying through his teeth’
Yambao declined to confirm a BIR report that he and his wife Isabel had no visible means of income and did not file income tax returns (ITRs) from 1993 to 2003.
He said that while they might have failed to file ITRs in that period, he paid a “final tax” out of his savings and profits from joint investments with friends.
Told repeatedly to explain the transactions that had led him to pay the final tax, Yambao said a disclosure might incriminate him and his business partners.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Drilon said that while Yambao did not admit to his wealth, there were sufficient documents to charge him with tax evasion.
“He’s lying through his teeth,” Drilon said.
Under questioning by Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, Yambao said he invested in stocks before 1999.
But he could not recall his investments other than in Westmont Bank stocks, let alone his total earnings from stock trading. Yet he remembered loaning money to one Marian Chu for casino gambling.
Yambao said his family’s Innovative Foods and Trading began as a single proprietorship in 1988 and was later converted into a corporation.
He said the company supplied confectioneries to Rustan’s, SM Supermarket and Landmark, among others, from the 1980s until 2003.
But he could not recall the company’s volume of sales, and said the books were burned and their assets “junked” after the business went bankrupt.
Enrile noted inconsistencies in Yambao’s claims that he retired in 1999 due to a heart problem, asked a supervisor, whom he could not name, to take over his job, but continued to oversee the family business until 2003.
Yambao also claimed to have traveled throughout the United States, and to Europe, Australia and Asia in 1987-2000.
He said that he traveled to Las Vegas, sometimes to gamble, and that in one of his trips, he went on a three-month tour of Australia, visiting Sydney, Brisbane and Canberra, on the invitation of a business partner.
In 1993, he said, he traveled to London, Paris, Montecarlo and Brussels, all paid for by a supplier.
“In my recollection, I traveled every year,” he said.
After a long pause, Yambao said he purchased a house in Melbourne, Australia, from family savings, and traveled there every now and then to see his wife and child.
He said he bought the house either in 1998, 1999 or 2000, and sold it eight or nine years later.
Yambao also said he had been a permanent resident of Australia since 1991. “I’m also a resident of the Philippines,” he said.
He admitted to have paid taxes in Australia, and the senators asked him to produce the ITR.
Tense and weepy
Looking tense, Erlinda Yambao Ligot arrived at the Senate at 9 a.m. but broke down before Sen. Jinggoy Estrada could pose his first question to her at around noon.
Estrada had earlier presented documents showing her as having made 42 trips abroad from 1993 to 2004, and as being listed as the owner of three houses in California in the United States.
“I’m not feeling well” were Erlinda’s first words when it was her turn to be questioned. She began crying moments later, and was excused by the committee and sent to the Senate clinic.
She registered a blood pressure of 180/120 and a heart rate of 120 beats per minute, according to the medical bulletin later issued by the Senate physician, Renato Sison Jr.
Sison said the patient was given “antihypertensive medication and oxygen inhalation.”
“As her vital signs were stabilized to 120/80 and heart rate at 88 bpm, she was then subsequently discharged at around 2:10 p.m.,” part of the medical bulletin read.
Estrada was to have asked Erlinda Ligot about the questionable purchases in the United States and her foreign travels suspected to have been financed by military funds.
In her stead, her husband was alternately questioned by Estrada and Drilon. But Estrada said she would be summoned again.
Estrada asked Ligot about the purchase and sale of a house allegedly made by his wife seven years ago.
The senator produced a copy of a grant deed showing an “unmarried woman” named Erlinda Y. Ligot granting to an “unmarried” Erlinda Yambao the property located at 7102 Stanton Avenue, Buena Park, California. (In a previous hearing, the senator said Erlinda bought the property in cash for $183,868 in 2002.)
“She bought a house (on) Stanton Avenue, Buena Park on Nov. 1, 2004, and her civil status—and this might interest you, General Ligot—stated that she was unmarried,” Estrada told Ligot, adding:
“Why unmarried? Was she ashamed of you?”
The Ligots were married in 1977.
“It’s very clear in the document that she bought [a house] then sold it to herself using a different surname,” Estrada said.
He later told reporters that the arrangement was meant to conceal the property from Philippine authorities. “Very obvious,” he said.
Ligot repeatedly invoked his right against self-incrimination, saying the matters raised by the senators were included in his forfeiture case in the Sandiganbayan.
Exasperated, Estrada later told Sen. Teofisto Guingona III, the committee chair, that he did not think the senators could “extract credible answers” from Ligot.
Estrada said he wanted at least one more hearing next week before the committee wrapped up its inquiry.
In his second appearance at the inquiry, Cimatu, now the special envoy to the Middle East, was caught off-guard by Drilon’s questions on the two pieces of Iloilo property.
“Somebody had pointed these out to me. I was not aware how these were acquired,” he said.
Cimatu said the landowning family of his wife Fe “might have acquired it on their own.”
“Even when I was a lieutenant, they had some lands in Antique and Iloilo,” he said.
Drilon said one property was registered in June 1987 under the names of Roy and Fe Cimatu, and the other, in July 1984 under the name of Fe Cimatu.
To the question of how one ended up in his name, Cimatu replied: “I’ll check, your honor, because I’m too ashamed to ask them about their property.”
Asked if the two pieces of real estate were his wife’s property that were merely registered in his name, he said: “It appears to be so.”
He could not say how the property was transferred to his name, and how much it cost. But he said he believed it was listed in his statement of assets and liabilities.
Quoting documents, Drilon said the two lots were mortgaged for P24.4 million to Queen City Development Bank in Iloilo in 2010, and could be worth over P30 million.
At the time these were registered, Cimatu was a major in the military.
“I’m not aware of all this, your honor. I’ll check with them,” Cimatu said when asked if he had knowledge of the mortgage.